A struggling reader’s best friend: Paws to R.E.A.D.® helps literacy for kids

Local dogs volunteer to help young Richmonders become better (and more confident) readers. Yes, dogs.

I’m an English major, about one third of my annual earnings come from freelance writing jobs (both of which require a good amount of research1), and according to GoodReads2, I’m about to finish my 29th book of 2015.

You could say that reading is one of my “things.”

That was not always the case. Some of my earliest memories involve me struggling to read.

I remember spending hours lying on the carpet of my parents’ bedroom trying to make sense of all of those clumped up letters in a tattered copy of Green Eggs and Ham.

I remember sitting at my desk in Mrs. Gresock’s first grade class at Swift Creek Elementary laboring over the directions printed across the top of a math worksheet.

I remember seeing other kids in my class zipping through fat chapter books while I stumbled through skimpy easy-readers.

I remember the stone cold fear of being called on during our class’s round robin-reading sessions.

I was only six years old, but I was keenly aware that I did not measure up.

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Even though my time as a struggling reader was but a blip in my life as whole (I believe I was reading on grade level by the start of second grade), my chest still hurts when I think back on the embarrassment and frustration I felt. In that short amount of time, my confidence suffered a blow that took years to shake off.

That’s why I almost burst into tears when I walked into my neighborhood library a couple of years ago and saw a dog settling down on the floor next to a little girl.

The dog was named Harvey, and he was there to be read to.

Harvey visited the library that day–and many others–as a volunteer with Paws to R.E.A.D.®, a local affiliate of the Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Therapy Animals Reading Education Assistance Dogs® (R.E.A.D.) program. Paws to R.E.A.D. dogs and handlers travel to schools and libraries all over Richmond and the surrounding counties to provided one-on-one tutoring for kids not reading at grade level. It’s locally managed by Sprite’s Humane Education and Research Organization (HERO), an all-volunteer nonprofit here in Richmond. Sprite’s HERO is named for a one-time “shelter mutt” and long-time volunteer therapy dog who worked all over Richmond for many of her 17 years.

“The dogs are nonjudgmental listeners, taking the stress out of a very challenging process: reading out loud,” explains Chris Miller, Director of Sprite’s HERO (and Sprite’s owner/handler). “By [third] grade, children know if they are not reading at the same level as their peers [and] that can be frustrating and even painful.”

Paws to R.E.A.D. currently works with 19 volunteer teams, each composed of a dog and his or her handler. All volunteers–canine and human–are registered therapy dog teams who have completed evaluations (including temperament tests and supervised therapy visits) by local representatives of either Alliance of Therapy Dogs or Pet Partners. Once registered, the handlers then undergo specific R.E.A.D. training to learn how to tutor children in reading.

“Utilizing the dogs and the handler/owners as literacy mentors, Paws to R.E.A.D takes away [the children’s] frustration and replaces it with confidence, self esteem, and improved reading skills for all their school subjects,” says Miller. “Children love the dogs, and they learn to love to read.”

Volunteer dogs and their handlers typically divide their school and library visits into weekly 15- or 20-minute slots. The kids are welcome to pet the dogs as much as they like during their reading time, and the handlers are there to help with challenging words and to keep the session moving along.

“All the dogs pay attention and many like to see the pictures in the books,” explains Miller. “[The kids] love that they have one-on-one time with the dog–that the dog listens to them, that they get to interact with the dogs. Many handlers ask questions through the dog3, so the children appreciate that the dog has questions about their books.”

— ∮∮∮ —

Since setting up shop here in Richmond in 2006, the Paws to R.E.A.D. dogs and handlers have worked with over 1,800 local kids–and established quite a reputation for themselves in the community.

“The dogs are like rockstars!” declares Doris Favale, a reading specialist at Beaverdam Elementary School in Hanover County. “When walking down the hallway to my room, the dogs are often stopped by students, some who are not even involved in Paws to R.E.A.D., to be greeted and petted.”

Favale brought Paws to R.E.A.D. into her school after witnessing the program’s impact firsthand on her own kid. Favale’s oldest daughter started reading to the legendary Sprite herself when she was nine years old–not because of reading difficulty but to help her overcome her shyness.

“I thought the Paws to R.E.A.D. program would allow her to interact with others while participating in an activity (reading) in which she was successful,” Favale explains. “It was a good confidence booster for her and allowed her to reach outside of her comfort zone in a secure environment.”

Favale wanted the same thing for her students: the children in her school who struggle read. And she’s gotten it.

“The biggest improvement I’ve noticed is in the students’ attitude towards reading. The students are very motivated to read to the dogs and are less inhibited around the dogs,” says Favale. “They are willing to take risks and don’t worry as much about making mistakes. Many of the students also improve in their reading fluency and expression. Some students make gains in the difficulty level of the text they are able to read.”

Donna Dempsey, a reading specialist at Harry E. James Elementary School in Hopewell, has seen similar results. After incorporating Paws to R.E.A.D. into her reading instruction during the 2014-2015 school year, she saw improvements in fluency and phrasing among the students participating in the program.

But just like Favale, it’s not just about the week-to-week, measurable evidence of the program’s success; there’s a long-term, emotional element for the kids, as well.

“Having the dogs there to listen to each student read is a unique way of breaking down any barriers that the students may feel about their own reading experience,” she explains. “They are happy to be there and eager to get started in reading!” she explains. 

Now do you see why I got choked up? 

— ∮∮∮ —

Paws to R.E.A.D. currently works in eight elementary schools in Richmond, Henrico, Hanover, and Hopewell. Due to a significant number of dog volunteers retiring, moving, and/or “taking trips over the rainbow bridge”, there’s currently a waiting list for new school programs, but Miller encourages interested organizations to still get in touch.

“We add programs individually as we have volunteers who can serve the facility. We are constantly recruiting, so that we can keep fulfilling requests,” she says.

Parents can also bring their children to the Richmond SPCA or to public libraries to snag reading time with the Paws to R.E.A.D. dogs. Libraries currently on their schedule include Atlee, Bon Air, Clover Hill, LaPrade, Midlothian, New Kent, and Richmond’s Main Branch. Teams are also set to start volunteering at Tuckahoe and Gayton in January of next year.

For more information on Paws to R.E.A.D.–including details on how you and your pups can get involved–visit spriteshero.org or email Chris Miller directly. And a heads up for the future: Sprite’s HERO will participate in the Amazing Raise for the first time this September. Keep them in mind if you’re looking for a nonprofit to support. I mean…children, animals, and literacy? How much more do-gooding do you want from one organization, Richmond?!

  1. “Research” often means reading an astounding number of blogs and forums, but it counts. 
  2. Be my friend
  3. Too…adorable…cannot…function… 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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